There is a special group of people who are remembered by a society. These are the fallen, those who die in battle on behalf of something larger than themselves. In the Bible there is an infrequently used term “nephilim” from the verb “to fall.”
Based on the archaeological evidence, the Nephilim appear to have been part of group who were remembered in Canaanite societies in the Middle and Late Bronze Age (second millennium BCE). These fallen warriors were remembered in feasts and stories just as warriors who have fallen in battle are still remembered today. It’s part of the human experience.
Those who died did not always do so in victory. Sometimes the great stories were of those slain in battle against foes human or divine. In the Gilgamesh and Iliad epics the deaths of Enkidu and Patroclus helped create the stories of Gilgamesh and Achilles. The Spartans at Thermopylae were a modern box office smash. The cinematic deaths of Spartacus and El Cid likewise attest the continuing power of the stories of the fallen. The fallen at the Alamo, Little Big Horn, Pearl Harbor, and Pickett’s Charge are all staples of the American narrative.
But many soldiers die in ways that are not the stuff of legends. They die from disease due to unsanitary conditions. They die from wounds which can not or are not treated. They die in prison camps. They often die in the face of an onslaught of human technology which can kill vast numbers of people in staggeringly brief periods of time.
The Civil War changed the way American’s fallen were treated and remembered. The heroic death of the individual warrior story was overwhelmed by the immense carnage disrupting the lives of millions. The estimated 750,000 who perished in the Civil War made this it a defining war in American history, remembered for the amount of blood spilled and because it touched each and every community. Those died often did so far from their community. They often left a body which could not be identified. A new phenomenon of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II was burial at the battlefield in vast numbers. Perhaps America’s greatest speech dedicated one such battlefield:
“We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg witnessed the change which had occurred in American burial practices due to war. He understood and movingly expressed his awareness with words that defined the new America which emerged from that war.
Recently we had a double reminder of this change in burial practices. The 70th anniversary of D-Day means few veterans are left from the battle. This year also marks the centennial of the onset of World War I. Although our participation was still three years away, we should recognize that as with World War II and the Civil War, many World War I warriors left home and their body was never returned. As one observer noted, the headstones at Flanders Field are redolent with the names of immigrants and second-generation Americans now returning to the continent they or their ancestors had left. They had become part of an ongoing story from the American Revolution to the present. But never before had so many Americans fought and died so far from America and returning the bodies home simply wasn’t feasible.
Today it’s difficult to realize how important Memorial/Decoration Day once was. After the Civil War the new holiday provided a way for each community to remember its fallen. For decades the holiday truly was a community event; it was integral to the social fabric. Who in the community hadn’t lost someone? The community benefited from the sacrifice of others so even if you were one of the few with no direct connection to those who had died, you still were part of that shredded fabric and the pain and anguish of the relatives and family of the deceased was your pain and anguish too. That’s what it meant to be part of a community then.
Although the bodies could not be returned for burial at home, their name could still be remembered and honored. The memorial replaced the headstone; the monument substituted for the grave. One can still find these memorials and monuments in every village, town, and city listing the fallen. Honoring and remembering the name was important. The Vietnam Memorial in the nation’s capital with the name of everyone who died in that war stands as testament to that remembering. Physically touching the name of a departed loved one reverberates through every pore of he mourner who visits these memorials.
But over time, this remembering dwindled. The parades grew shorter. Attendance declined. Families moved away. Newer wars became messier and less popular. Newer residents had little connection to the community’s fallen. Since the history of the community wasn’t taught in the schools, the young weren’t taught the sacrifices of those who came before them. Often, the monuments and memorials are now something one simply drives by without giving a second thought… or even a first one.
Sometimes there were burial problems even when the soldiers did return. In 1860, Elizabeth Halstead donated land to the Town of Rye, NY, to be used for the memorials of African Americans, specifically the Civil War veterans who did return, but had nowhere to be buried. The Rye Colored Cemetery belonged to the town and was adjacent to a rural cemetery. Over 300 people were buried there including at least 36 veterans of various wars. When Rye was designated a city in 1942, no provision was made for who would be responsible for cemetery, now located in the city, but owned by the town. As a result, no one was. The cemetery became overgrown and fell into state of disrepair. Eventually some efforts were made by the town to maintain the property.
A turning point occurred in 2012, when Daniel Vitagliano, a Boy Scout from the village of Port Chester (in the Town of Rye), identified 20 people buried there as part of his Eagle Scout project. He became an historian. He read obituaries. He sifted through decades of death certificates. He combed through military records. In 2013, Anna Kay-Sminkle, for her Girl Scout project, continued the work in documenting the people buried there. Aided by research done by William Sutherland, they created a kiosk which was dedicated on Memorial Day this year.
Whether or not this cemetery and the others in the community ever make it into the school curriculum. How can we be dedicated to the unfinished work if we don’t remember those honored dead?
How we remember the fallen reveals the soul of a society. Not every death is an epic worthy of an Iliad, Gilgamesh, or Song of Roland. Not every death is a larger-than-life experience like the Alamo, Little Big Horn, Pearl Harbor, or Pickett’s Charge. But in each and every community, in each and every village, in each and every town, and in each and every city there are stories to tell of those who never returned, whose bodies lay buried in another state or another country and may never have even been identified. And although their names are carved in stone often in the center of our community they are mostly forgotten. The stone may be eternal, but memory is not – unless the story is told again and again and becomes part of who we are.
Photo: The American military cemetery in Normandy in 2003; photo courtesy Wikimedia user Bjarki Sigursveinsson.